The Rustlands of Morgantha


Thoughtcasts from the Edge:

The Rustlands of Morgantha

In the third of our monthly Mindscape Updates, David Donachie brings us the second instalment of ‘Thoughtcasts From the Edge’ — travelogues uploaded to the Mindscape by the myriads of transhumanity exploring the vibrant worlds of Commonality Space. Join us on Morgantha …

It’s harder to imagine a greater contrast than the one which confronted me when I made the journey from Demmaraine to Morgantha. Ten days aboard an abrasive planeship by the name of Perilous Descent brought me to the Morgantha system in the company of a team of xenoarchaeologists; few others have reason to visit the Rustlands.

The Morgantha system possesses a number of inhabited planetoids, but only one planet ever saw habitation – Morgantha itself, and its people are long gone. Seeing it from orbit, I thought of a fruit on the turn, brown stains spreading across the faded peel of the surface; or the rusting hulk of an oceanic vessel, beached on a desert coast far from the sea.

It’s easy to be melancholy on Morgantha. It’s a dead world, dry and slumbering beneath a blanket of its own shed skin. Once, so deep in the First Age that no date remains, Morgantha boasted a world-spanning civilisation. Sky-piercing towers, shining cities, serpentine mass-transit systems blanketed the surface — a product of Morgantha’s plentiful mineral wealth. Xenoarchaeologists identify an ‘Iron Age’ or ‘Metal Empire’, conjuring the afterglow of a vast, sophisticated culture, of hard edges and polished surfaces.

It’s hard to imagine those hard edges and polished surfaces now. Everything on Morgantha is brittle with decay. Powdered rust, soft like beach sand, covers the surface to a depth of many metres. Weathered spires of rocks and needles of construction pierce the surface like treetops emerging from a sea of mist. These are the Rustlands, and they cover every part of Morgantha. What few treasures the planet still holds — enigmatic machines and oxidised artworks — are concealed beneath this blanket of umber.

The journey to the surface is short but exciting. There are no flight controls on Morgantha to delay you, but the air is full of dust and swirling thermals from the desert. For the first time since leaving Demmaraine, the Perilous Descent seemed genuinely happy, doubtless appreciating how well its name suited its task. From the cramped bridge I watched ribbons of orange dust, as fine as sand, twist across the hull.

Morran Station, close to the equator, is a labyrinth of white domes and corridors dug into the rusted surface. Everything is stained orange; your belongings and your skin will quickly acquire the same shade, which tints even the lukewarm water flowing through the station’s faucets. There are more rooms than inhabitants — even with a crowd of new arrivals I felt alone — and you are free to make any of the empty chambers your own.

I had no intention of staying on Morgantha longer than the Perilous Descent did, and on the day after arrival I prevailed upon Doctor Xinuye — the station director — to show me the sights.

We set out into the Rustlands in the half-light of dawn. Our hover bikes kicked up trails of rust that lingered in the sterile air behind us. The wind smells of dried blood, every breath tainted with flakes of rust. Long-term residents wear breathers or genurgic mods. Hover bikes or suspensor belts are a must. The wind-furrowed surface of the Rustlands is initially reminiscent of packed sand, but is very different. Where a beach will accept your weight, the rust is soft, giving way under every step. You’ll make a brave attempt to walk on it, flounder, and accept your suspensor assist with good grace.

Twenty kilometres out of Morran Station we came across a trio of iron towers, protruding from the rust dunes like reeds from a mere. The tower walls were orange like the sand, crazed with patterns of cracks. From a distance I thought of lizard scales, but close up all sense of order vanished, and the weathered flanks of metal looked more like river plains seen from above — full of holes through which pitted glimpses of Morgantha’s blue sky glimmered like flecks of water.

Ruins like these litter the blood red plains, but they are but the barest shadow of what once stood here. Most of the rest is dust, buried far beneath the surface. Doctor Xinuye took me to an excavation site between two dust-brown hills, location of his most recent discoveries.

The pit was conical, shallow-sided to avoid collapse, stepped like an inverted ziggurat. Heat treatment applied to the rust surface creates a crust strong enough to walk on, but heavy equipment is out of the question. Well-equipped explorers use techno-telekinesis to extract artefacts from the depths. Less well-equipped ones use their hands.

I had the luxury of using one of Doctor Xinuye’s drones to extract an item that poked, just visible, from the compacted surface; but in the end I could not resist using my hands to brush away the final flakes.

The object that my labours revealed resembled a prehistoric carving: a squat figure, legs crossed, eyes closed, smile beatific, with a gear-edged hat perched upon its head. The metal of the statue was iron like all the rest, but some accident of design or surface treatment had left it intact amongst the decay. When I rubbed at the surface with my thumb I exposed a tiny line of numerals etched into the metal. By Morganthan standards this statue was a treasure — one tiny artefact plucked from a sea of ruin.

Some visitors, captivated, find it hard to leave the Rustlands. My mouth dry with the taste of blood, I was only too glad to rejoin the Perilous Descent and journey onwards.